Hostile environment policy has failed, causing poverty and racism amongst migrants instead of achieving its goals by Charlotte Rubin

A study by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has found that the hostile environment policy, introduced by Therese May in 2012 in an effort to deter irregular migrants from staying to the UK, has fostered racism and discrimination, contributed to pushing many people into destitution, and erroneously affected people with the legal right to live and work in the UK.

The hostile environment’s key objective has always been to make life for those living in the UK without immigration status so difficult that they ultimately decide to leave. In order to achieve this, measures under the hostile environment make it harder for individuals without status to rent a house, find a job, get driving licences or even simply open a bank account, in the hope that by making these basic services harder to access, they would voluntarily leave and irregular migration numbers would decline.

As voluntary returns/departures from the UK have dropped since 2014 (after the hostile environment came into force), the IPPR’s report found that the policy not only fails to meet that goal, but it also has endangered and complicated the lives of migrants in the UK in various ways.

Firstly, for those without immigration status with little to no financial support from the state, finding work is essential to ensuring some financial security and to avoid destitution. By forcing employers to check employees’ “right to work” and criminalising work without immigration status, the hostile environment pushes migrants without a status into the shadow economy and cash-in-hand jobs (especially if they are not allowed to open a bank account). This makes them vulnerable to exploitation and modern slavery if they manage to find work, and destitution if they don’t. The risk of destitution and impoverishment is exacerbated by the restrictions on access to benefits and healthcare. The report specifically mentions malnutrition, cramped and substandard accommodation, and mental ill-health among undocumented migrant families unable to access public funds.

The problems do not stop there. The hostile environment, it turns out, not only impacts its target population, namely individuals without immigration status, but also many individuals with legal immigration status.

As such, the report shows that the policy fosters ethnic and racial bias, as home and work raids are often targeted at specific nationalities on the basis that they are “believed to be removable.” Unsurprisingly, these people are often people of colour and ethnic minority background. Similarly, the right to rent checks have been ruled discriminatory and biased against people of ethnic minority backgrounds, because they make landlords more suspicious of “removable-looking” people, whatever that may mean, and therefore disadvantage tenants of ethnic minority backgrounds who might very well be British nationals or people with leave to remain.

Recently, the hostile environment has been under heavy scrutiny. In March, the Wendy Williams Windrush review was laid before Parliament. The report overtly criticised the workings of the Home Office’s hostile environment, exposing how thousands of legal UK residents were classified as illegal immigrants and denied the right to work, rent property, access healthcare and benefits during the Windrush Scandal. In April, the Court of Appeal affirmed that immigration checks required by landlords to ensure that tenants have the right to rent are discriminatory, but fell short from ruling that the discrimination was severe enough to render it unlawful. The case is currently being appealed.

The IPPR report warns that a significant proportion of EU citizens will miss the EUSS application deadline of 30 June 2021, barring them from accessing benefits and many public services and losing their immigration status altogether. Despite the mounting warnings and criticism, the Home Secretary confirmed in May that EU citizens who fail to apply for status under the EU Settlement Scheme in time will be unlawful residents and fall subject to all hostile environment policies currently in place.

For all these reasons and many more, the report is unequivocal in its condemnation of the policy, stating that “restrictions on access to benefits can force people without immigration status into destitution. There is evidence of malnutrition, cramped and substandard accommodation, and mental ill-health among undocumented migrant families unable to access public funds … The hostile environment does not appear to be working for anyone: for migrants, for the Home Office, or for the wider public.”

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